April 2007


An article by Eyal Press titled The New Suburban Poverty, in The Nation magazine, reports a stunning fact about the American suburbs:

Stories of downward mobility in America’s suburbs have not exactly cluttered the headlines over the past decade. Gated communities of dream homes, mansions ringed by man-made lakes and glass-cube office parks: These are the images typically evoked by the posh, supersized subdivisions built during the 1990s technology boom. Low-wage jobs, houses under foreclosure, families unable to afford food and medical care are not. But venture beyond the city limits of any major metropolitan area today, and you will encounter these things, in forms less concentrated — and therefore less visible — than in the more blighted pockets of our cities perhaps, but with growing frequency all the same. …

The result is a historic milestone that has gone strangely ignored: For the first time ever, more poor Americans live in the suburbs than in all our cities combined.

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Washington Post columnist John Kelly looks at street curbs in Answer Man Favors Accessorizing the Streets. Kelly receives a question from some DC visitors who notice that the curbs are made of attractive granite instead of prosaic concrete. They ask,

As we had recently upgraded our own kitchen surfaces with granite, at a cost of several thousand dollars, we wondered how the use of such an expensive material can be justified by the city.

Turns out the granite saves labor and money in the long run. Ordinary concrete lasts 10-20 years depending on usage and conditions, while granite lasts many decades or even centuries.

Yes, it’s more expensive than concrete — about $45 per linear foot vs. $25 — but it’s more durable, said Abdullahi Mohamed, a supervisory civil engineer with the D.C. Department of Transportation.

Granite — solid, heavy — resists road salt and errant snowplow blades. When there’s roadwork to be done, granite curbs can be lifted up, set aside, then put back in place.

Apart from the bookkeeping issues are those of community pride and urban beauty.

Answer Man thinks that wherever possible we should strive for beauty, even in the lowly and the mundane. After all, Washington is a city of straight lines, from the grid that Pierre L’Enfant drew when he laid out the city to the knife’s edge walls of the National Gallery of Art East Building. Granite curbs help to crisply delineate the landscape, separating street from sidewalk and reminding us that it’s nice to live in a beautiful city.

A video supplementing Kelly’s column is available. Also, the American Granite Curb Producers website provides detailed information about performance and costs.

Planners and urban designers often talk about the “human scale” in walkable areas. But what does that really mean — is it simply a case of “I know it when I see it”? Are there more specific ways for people to describe why some building frontages seem especially friendly and welcoming?

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For the design of storefronts, a very useful booklet is Thrive: A Guide to Storefront Design in the District of Columbia (2002), by Derrick Lanardo Woody. The booklet covers the elements of human-scale storefronts in an easy-to-understand format and with plenty of photos.

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The following is an excerpt from the article “Talking Shopping Center” by Tom Hanchett.

The thing that struck me as I started my research was how long it took for that idea to catch on. Despite wide publicity for that first one [Country Club Plaza in Kansas City], shopping centers remained a rarity for thirty years. The problem was cost. Erecting a big new shopping center made economic sense only in very well-to-do neighborhoods. If you’re a real estate developer, it makes much more sense just to sell house lots because you get your money back immediately. You have to operate a shopping center for many years before you make a profit. In Kansas City, the developer was already making a bundle of bucks from his lot sales and he figured he could sell even more houselots by building that shopping center — as an attraction, a loss leader.

Not until the mid 1950s did shopping centers appear in any numbers. The first enclosed shopping mall is generally considered to be Southdale Mall, built in 1956 outside of Minneapolis. Then suddenly shopping centers take off, and they’re EVERYWHERE. Why then? Why so suddenly?

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At first glance the notion of free-market parking meters seems impossibly arcane. But as Donald Shoup pointed out in a recent NY Times editorial, “cruising for curb parking generates about 30 percent of the traffic in central business districts.” Shoup studied Westwood Village, next to the UCLA campus, and found that drivers searching for curb parking created 950,000 excess vehicle miles of travel per year. That’s equivalent to 38 trips around the earth, taking place in just one retail district in L.A.

Shoup calls the impacts of parking space cruising “astonishing,” and he’s right. The unnecessary traffic congestion hurts downtown businesses and activities. The extra miles traveled waste gasoline and generate pollution. If curb parking could somehow be freed up so that it was always easy to find a space, then that extra waste and pollution could be eliminated.

One solution is free-market parking. Set parking meter prices so that 85% of spaces are occupied and 15% are open at any given moment. This idea has been getting more attention lately, and Redwood City, CA is the locality that has put the most advanced implementation into action.

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